[Thanks to me old mucker Steve Willey for contributing heavily to the editing process for this piece. The following ideas and opinions are not entirely indicative of Openned's ideals, only my own. - Alex Davies]

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A few weeks ago, Ron Silliman penned a thought provoking piece on his blog, which I shall quote at length here. You can read the entire article on his blog. He mentions two things, both of which I will use as jumping off points in this post.

I’m also very pleased to see the emergence of actual tendencies of poetry in the U.S. that are clear enough in their aesthetics, their politics, and their sense of themselves to take on names – flarf, conceptual poetics, possibly even American hybrid (a better term than elliptical, tho I’m not convinced that it’s any more descriptive of what’s really going on there than “third way”). More than anything, I think this new militancy represents a generational change in poetry, and all to the good. The poets (if not the poetry) that came after language writing tended very much to avoid such terms and group designations. To a significant degree, I think that that allergy toward self- and group identification ran historically parallel to the ascendancy of the right after the election of Ronald Reagan (& deepened by the so-called fall of Communism). Perhaps we all owe George W. Bush a big vote of thanks for bringing that period to a close. That poets no longer feel so constrained is, I think, a good thing. But I think that there is also lots of room for argument, even among post-avants, as to what’s useful or interesting to do.

Now, I have nothing per se against adopting a manifesto or set of principle rules or concepts in poetry. Schools of thought and groups of poets are often, nay, usually, the lynchpins of our canon. Categorisation is, in my opinion, a necessity both of canonisation and academic debate, and I know Ron has explored this himself in the past (see this article as an example).

But in general, I think too much critical value is prematurely attached to objects, cultural movements, and indeed styles of poetry that some choose to name too soon, or in extreme cases, label. The clearest problem that arises from this is that contemporary poets of substance are bypassed or ignored because they are not so easily reified into one of these arbitrary categories. The critic with his taxonomies and endless specimen jars becomes the immediate, and in one sense forced, arbiter of artistic worth. The critic’s ‘expert’ and excessive chatter of specific names and specific groups tends to clog the cultural ear and smog the reading eyes; the billboard distracts from the graffiti - the advertised name from the poem. It is not the critic’s fault, for theirs is the vocation of attempting to make sense of the ebb and flow of the development of poetry. They must number the steps that we make and ensure that if we were to turn back, we would not lose count. But at the same time this compulsion to immediately identify and categorise is stifling and potentially damaging.

Of course, this is not Ron Silliman’s point. His is a good one - that becoming part of a collective, following a named constraint, or articulating a poetics in a way separate from (but related to) the actual poetic output, can lend a sense of purpose, an increased rigour, a heightened awareness, and perhaps, a sense of worthwhileness to one’s writing. In fact, it may under certain circumstances increase dialogue, debate and poetic rigour outside the immediate poetic circle that is trying to give name to itself by encouraging others to also put a name to their position. By naming one’s activities the poet facilitates the critic in a superficial engagement (or even non-engagement) with the poem. Nevertheless, I think the avoidance of ‘terms and group designations’ by many contemporary poets is, in a sense, an unarticulated choice. Within a given community one might intuitively know, and tacitly practice what one’s poetics are without needing to mediate ideas through another discourse such as a manifesto. There are ways of refining a poetics, testing poetic work and engaging in a debate, which are as rigorous and as valuable as the type of poetry that understands itself through rational arguments. To attempt to delineate these methods of understanding here would be fruitless, and even if I somehow could, it would undo everything these mechanisms achieve - there are no rules or manifestos other than what the poetry itself encounters. The poet is not the manufacturer of the reception of their work but instead an open performer. A poet is a poet when they become a cultural activist. This is a poet who defines his poetry through his social activities. This is not to say the social and the aesthetic are the same thing or operate along identical vectors but they are connected. The poem, when sunk into a community, has a chance to be intuitively known at the point at which it hits out at its culture in performance (whether that be through publication or physical reading). Names and categories can then result, like salt being distilled from sea water, a gradual evaporation leaving tangible remains that can be used in a positive and beneficial way. But it is the social mechanisms of the poet as cultural activist that brings this about. To extend the analogy perhaps too far, but necessarily so, I feel that many critics and groups of poets drink the sea water before the sun rises.

The majority of poetry I read tends to play and skirt around itself. I’m sure that, given enough time, every poem I read could be shoehorned into some school or group, but there is a sense of necessity and vitality to the best of the poetry that would be curtailed if the poets were forced to articulate their thinking via some external rationale (when I say curtailed, I don’t mean in the sense of a straitjacket, I mean in the sense of a fence around a big green field). I’m not saying that the poetry that is being written cannot be named or grouped because of how diverse and brilliant it is - that would be naive. My point is that, if the poetry is good enough, it should survive in and of itself. Some poets advertise their poetics, adorned in neon hung from rooftops. With the lack of widespread interest in certain types of poetry, there is often a need, and an understandable one at that, to attempt to compete and self-classify, to grab the attention of poetry’s small audience. Categorisation and grouping should come later - not necessarily when the poet is dead or decades have passed, but when criticism and theoretical discourse leads to a labelling or grouping of the work. In short, it is not the naming or categorising of poetry that I object to - in fact, as I have said earlier, I think it necessary and in some sense, vital -- but the rapid assimilation and, in a sense, consumption of often subtly disparate works in a way that could hinder possible explorations of the poetic work in the future. Taking Flarf as a case in point, the self-imposed, critically and politically reinforced name itself can very quickly lead either to the nod of approval or the howl of derision, based less on a developing practice than a discourse surrounding the socio-political implications of a branded poetry that may have more to give, more to reveal, but that is stunted and suffocated by the weight of the term that has been pre-emptively allocated to it. Of course, I could be wrong, Flarf could prove an enduring and important school of thought. Conversely, I could be right, and we could lose poets whose work would perhaps have been given a chance among other readers who did not find the socio-political implications of Flarf a turn-off and whose work may have survived and flourished if not prematurely labelled.

I believe that, in the majority, such rushed (not necessarily flimsy or incorrect, but rushed) naming and labelling is a direct result of an attempt to cram everything in, to ensure that the very poetry I most like to engage with is not lost. In other words, there’s simply not enough attention to go around, or not enough attentive, considered reading. The intentions are good, and I cannot criticise those who attempt to name or to label poetry, nor can I say that there is a wrong or a right time to name a type of poetry. What I am saying is that the moment of naming should arise out of motivations that are not to do with whim or convenience but to do with necessity, and I mean this primarily in a social context. When the poet as cultural activist achieves a recognition within the receptive audience of what their poetry is doing, and how it is doing that, at this point the name can be ascribed to describe what that effect is. It need not be the final word on a poetic work but the beginning of a more detailed and focussed discourse. Indeed, how, you may ask, does this differ from a critic arbitrarily manufacturing a nomenclature through which the poet must either then choose to adopt or attempt to break through? How is it any better, or anymore worthwhile? The answer is within the social context of the work. The collision of the poetic work with the social context in which it is performed, the collusion of the two, achieves a recognition that cannot be determined by the critic poised with the pen. If this is the case, and I am to advocate this ‘inherent’ notion of naming, how can poets ensure a readership for their work without following models akin to the competition between brands in free-market capitalism? In other words, how can a poet make themselves heard in a world where poetry is more prolific and more crowded than ever before? Trying to answer this leads me on to Ron’s second point.

We have way more than ten thousand publishing poets in the English language, which is maybe ten times what it was when I was in my early 20s & close to 100 times what it was when the New Americans were making their way in the 1950s. In another decade, we will easily have more than 20,000 publishing poets. Does anybody think that the actual reading audience for poetry has grown proportionately? (The only way to answer yes to that is if you think nobody reads poetry – or at least reads it seriously – but poets.) This is a far more profound change than, say, the collapse of trade publishing, the death of bookstores that won’t carry your chapbook, or the fact that we are producing close to a thousand new poets every year when the number of jobs for poets expands by about 50.

The exponential rate at which poetry is being produced is at once poetry’s biggest problem and its secret weapon. The old ideas of submitting manuscripts to print publishers who then decide the methods of publication and distribution of a work will always have their place, but not their priority. The oligarchy is now being challenged by a tumultuous democracy, with the notion of community, sharing work, small social gatherings. Accompanied by far-reaching readings, bitesize online publications twinned with printed anthologies and collections that are relatively few and and far between - this is the direction poetry needs to go in to prosper. The advent of the online presence has spread poetry thin, scattering the good content of a few exceptional voices amongst a multitude of mediocre ones. There are more poets than ever before but, I would argue on a purely subjective basis, still the same amount of good poets. Because of this, the idea of the online ‘filter’ will become massively important. People like Ron Silliman, Al Filreis, Carol Watts, Marcus Slease, Richard Barrett, Kenny Goldsmith, Johanna Linsley, Charles Bernstein, John Sparrow, Geof Huth, Peter Philpott, Edmund Hardy, Jow Lindsay - these people act, for me personally, as a kind of electronic gauze, squeezing the delicious juice out of the detritus. The above names are only a handful off the top of my head of people doing this work, there are many more. Openned attempts to do this too, with nearly everything it does. So how can poetry prosper and flourish with the new tools available to it? I see a number of key factors:

  • The constant movement and interaction of groups of poets. This needs to take place on a small scale and on a large scale. On the small scale, poets need to gather to share work, to talk and to simply enjoy each other’s company. On the large scale, readings, festivals, printed publications and serious websites need to maintain good energy levels to be beneficial. All of these things are going on and have been going on for longer than I’ve been alive, but now is the opportunity to invite collaboration, facilitation and interaction like never before with the tools available to us. There is no reason why gatherings of poets in London, New York and Paris could not become a single gathering of poets through the nifty implementation of some fibre optic cabling and free software. So let’s do it.

  • The establishment of the middleman, facilitators and filters of what is good and vital in poetry. Before, this was done by print publishers and the criteria was based on money, potential popularity, and artist merit - in that order. With the internet, the new criteria will be visibility, artist merit, and popularity, in that order. It is up to us, as democratic internet users, to pick and choose our filters wisely. The responsibility of those who create and maintain these filters will be to ensure that they themselves are active and responsive poets, or at least readers who engage with poetry being written, to ensure they do not succumb to the notion of being arbiters of taste as opposed to facilitators. The role of these middlemen should be to take the pre-existing discourses of an active groups of poets and channel them, not to manufacture or distort discourses that may not actually exist. In this way, they avoid becoming the literary equivalent of band managers.

  • The maintenance of existing, and establishment of new, online resources. There are invaluable resources of previously inaccessible or rare work already on the web: PennSound, U B U W E B, Archive of the Now, EPC,, Jacket Magazine, M E S H W O R K S, Chicago Review, The Continental Review, Artists’ Books Online - to name but a handful. These need to be utilised, cared for, appreciated. Only a decade ago none of this would have been possible. True, many of these sites get funding from private or academic institutions where impartiality cannot always be relied on, but we should think of these resources as additional texts that can be referred to instead of ledgers of canonised work. They should feed into the first two categories to enrich and provoke, not dictate.

If these avenues are wandered down expertly or with enthusiasm (either will do and one often leads to the other) then I’m convinced all else will follow. Through combining the tapestry of the massive online community with the intimate gatherings of immediate social consequence via the existing established mediums and comfortable distribution nodes print and academia provides, we can foster the climate in which unlabelled poetry can grow and find an audience. Think of it as a democracy of distribution based primarily on word of mouth. Everything in the system would be channelled into prioritising the consensus of the socially received poet and their work. Poetry is dependent on two things: the brilliance of the poets themselves, and their dedication and enterprise in facilitating the distribution of the poetry that they love. With so many poets out there, we need to bring these things closer together.

- Alex Davies

Reader Comments (4)

How do we get through the noise?
How do we manage our time and stay focused?
How do we use the net simply as a resource and not a chain of endless searching and linking?

These questions spring to mind as lastfm says to me 'all this and so little'

Thursday, February 19, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertheotherroom

the net becomes a resource when it is linked into the material world and when the material world feeds into the net, thinking and confusing the divide purposefully and willfully - through publication, documented performance, linking to other peoples projects and work - is the method; a method which only becomes relevant when it comes into contact with specifically molded, although not didactically controlled social space. Further more this social space has to be thought of as having an aesthetic in its own right and visa-versa one has to understand aesthetics as having a social relevance.

Expressing and articulating the dialectical criss-cross of social/aesthetic set against the porous border of online space/offline space is the answer to "getting through the noise" - although one must say it is only noise if you do not know it as anything else (ones persons noise is another persons poem). Furthermore, the socio-aesthetic quality of "noise" is extremely interesting and valuable, it don't think it can be something which can be "got through". This is not about increased visibility for the sake of increased visibility, it is not a marketing strategy. Visibility may come through a social understanding of ones own noise in and of itself.

On your other question - perhaps time should not be something that should be 'managed' , ideally life should not be compartmentalised; a focus comes through a social commitment to art. Interestingly however, one can be a committed poet without giving all his time to poetry - It has much to do with having a committed perspective, its about world views and their articulation in language.


Saturday, February 21, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteropenned

I agree with most of what Alex wrote. My questions pragmatically meant ‘that’s a lot of work to do’. So yep Steve it requires a lot of commitment and I value sites like Openned and Ubu, etc which have so much energy. I myself have a lot of energy but am sometimes left drained by the internet, in the little time I have, and question ‘am I using my time wisely’. Sometimes i am left, after using the internet, thinking ‘did I just do anything?’ / ‘did I do the most useful/entertaining thing. Maybe i’ll feel that way after writing this? Information overload does mean we need to manage our time well and compartmentalise to make sure we get the best information and get it when we need it.

I still think the editor/promoter as separate entity is very important, although I think it’s wonderful that the poet has the opportunity to promote his own poetry and that of others. Different people still have different roles to play.

On your point about ‘noise’ – no noise is interesting. If it is interesting then it’s not noise.
My analogy of lastfm to poetry on the net is the old dilemma; that of reading fragments of lots of wonderful texts rather than reading any of them properly.

Sunday, February 22, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertheotherroom

yeah, I guess what I was getting at was that if we say that noise may well be the social condition of the net then we have no business fighting against it or even judging from a distanced and objective stance what is interesting and what is not.

When I am walking down a street I am not thinking that the need to hear my own thoughts above the sirens, the extraneous chatter, the adverts, the hiss of breaks, is necessary because some how my thoughts are more important than the child having a tantrum that may or may not be standing on a street corner. No, infact, on some level I think I recognise my voice as part of that noise, part of the chatter. I am complicit in it, but I continue to talk anyway, as clearly as I can.

Complicating what that talk is, without an anxiety about being heard, is the key I think. This is a very practical pursuit. Also I am not sure if this is a useful/entertaining thing to be doing, I try to not let the thought cross my mind, it is impossible to judge. Maybe living is not a useful/entertaining thing to be doing?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteropenned

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